First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Michiel Hulsbergen: Fine. It helps that we live in a nice green environment, near a forest. I think people in cities have a more difficult time. And for our workload, the change of pace and diminished travel offer benefits as well.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded DialogueTrainer.
Michiel Hulsbergen: I am a psychologist and a Master of Management Consultancy. I’ve been involved in communication skills training from an early age, starting as a training actor at age 18, and then training in psychology. I wrote books on emotions in organization, and conflict resolutions skills and did research at Utrecht University. After several projects about developing online conversation simulations, I got involved in a project at Utrecht Uni, to develop an online platform to train students in communication skills. In 2016, after doing research and gaining experience, we started the DialogueTrainer company.
How does DialogueTrainer innovate?
Michiel Hulsbergen: DialogueTrainer develops an online platform for conversation simulations. On this platform, professionals and students engage in conversations with virtual avatars. These conversations are based on challenging practical situations for which we clarify a best-practice, which we validate with expert practitioners. On the platform, we monitor playthroughs, to improve the content and advance communication theory.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Michiel Hulsbergen: Initially, we saw the cancellation of several projects, but soon we also saw a rise in requests for our online material. Primarily especially from educators. Over the past months, we see a significant rise in commercial clients as well. Organizations that assumed their e-learning was sufficient for training in general, now seem to be more open to evaluating what their e-learning should do.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Michiel Hulsbergen: We decided to close our office, for the time being. This does have an effect on the people we work with: some work more efficiently than ever, but others have more difficulty. To cope with this, we are planning two-weekly team sessions with our full team, which end with drinks. Perhaps the most important lesson is to engage in goal-oriented conversations. This is true for our clients, but our own team as well. Seeing less of each other, both in terms of time spent together and actually picking up (non-verbal) signals which you might miss in online meetings, means you have to compensate by reflecting on your cooperation. This includes discussing needs and opportunities. And another lesson is to focus on the long term and keep building a story that clients can relate to.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Michiel Hulsbergen: By walking in the forest and playing with the kids.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Michiel Hulsbergen: We recognize some competition from providers of video-response tooling, where participants respond to a prerecorded video of an aspect of a conversation. We differentiate ourselves by focusing on the complete conversation model, which we assume to be a much more innovative approach. Previously we did see competition from providers of VR training. But although this looks innovative, it is now widely recognized that VR is not essential to conversations: most current professional conversations take place in a 2D environment! Also, VR is now regarded as less practical.
Your final thoughts?
Michiel Hulsbergen: We look forward to sharing our approach with readers.